Xenophon's Cyropaedia, 1803 English edition.[1]

The Cyropaedia, sometimes spelled Cyropedia, is a partly fictional biography[2] of Cyrus the Great, the founder of Persia's Achaemenid Empire. It was written around 370 BC by Xenophon, the Athenian-born soldier, historian, and student of Socrates. The Latinized title Cyropaedia derives from the Greek Kúrou paideía (Κύρου παιδεία), meaning The Education of Cyrus. Aspects of it would become a model for medieval writers of the genre mirrors for princes. In turn, the Cyropaedia strongly influenced the most well-known but atypical of these, Machiavelli's The Prince, which fostered the rejection of medieval political thinking and development of modern politics.


1594 edition

In substance, the Cyropaedia is a narrative describing the education of the ideal ruler.[3] It has been interpreted as an early novel, a biography, and a manifesto on leadership.[4] The work is intended to communicate political and moral instruction to its audience, most of whom would have been Athenian elites.[5]

While most scholars note that Xenophon did not write it as a historical text,[6] the Cyropaedia does not fit into any known classical genre, only somewhat resembling an early novel.[5] Its validity as a source of Achaemenid history has been repeatedly questioned, and numerous descriptions of events or persons have been found inaccurate.[6]

Despite its limitations, it has been argued that the Cyropaedia provides a glimpse of Cyrus the Great's character. It gives an artistic portrayal of Cyrus, which, according to some, could not have been so positive without a historical memory of good leadership.[7] Xenophon (c. 431 – 355 BC) was not a contemporary of Cyrus (c. 580 – 530 BC) and it is likely that some of his information about Persia was based on events that occurred at the later Achaemenid court. Xenophon had visited such as one of the "Ten Thousand" Greek soldiers who fought on the losing side of a Persian civil war, which he recounted in his Anabasis.


Book One

(1[8])Xenophon starts the life of Cyrus the Great when he is twelve years old. Cyrus's mother, Mandane, receives a request from her father to bring her son to Media to meet him. Her father is Astyages, King of the Medes. When meeting his grandfather, Cyrus recognizes his grandfather by his luxurious Medes clothing compared to his simple Persian clothing. The two stay in the Kingdom for a bit and Cyrus learns the traditions of the Medes. During his stay, Cyrus and Astyages form a good relationship with each other. After some time Mandane wants to go back to Persia, who is a vassal under the Medes, to see her husband, but her father wants Cyrus to stay. While against the idea Mandane still lets Cyrus make the choice to stay or not. Cyrus decides to stay stating that he had more to learn from the Medes.

Growing up in Media Cyrus gains a following of companions that he trains with. He also goes hunting with them, but they are limited on what they can hunt to keep them safe due to their ages. This does not sit well with Cyrus who begs his uncle, Cyaxares, to take him hunting. His uncle refuses at first but agrees later on. While hunting with Cyaxare, Cyrus comes upon dangerous animals that he risks his life to give his game to Astyages out of the love he has for him. Astyages rejects the gifts telling Cyrus that no gift could be worth endangering his life over.

During this time the King of Assyria is getting married. To celebrate he assembles a huge group of people to go hunting between the borders of the Assyrian and Median empires. Arriving at the hunting spot, the Assyrian King realized he had a massive host to raid the Medes' borders. Astyages summoned his armies in response to the Assyrians pillaging his lands. Even though Cyrus was too young to fight he could not contain himself and joined his grandfather on the march. The Median force comes across a host of Assyrians carrying away stolen goods. Astyages is hesitant to send in his troops for fear of enemy cavalry countercharging them. Cyrus suggests that Cyaxares should lead a small cavalry division to intercept the foot soldiers carrying the loot. If the enemy cavalry tries to reinforce the infantry, Astyages's troops rush in to stop them. The plan works with the Medes pushing back the Assyrians. Astyages gives the victory to Cyrus but mentions how his strategy was one of madness.

Cyrus's reputation from the battle spreads throughout the empire. His father, Cambyses I, hears of his son's achievements and calls him back home to Persia. On his return, Cyrus is welcomed back with open arms. His friends thought he would have come back as a luxurious Medes but instead a simple Persian. He spends his time in Persian until he becomes a young man. He spends his time learning and training in military traditions.

Astyages passes away and Cyaxares becomes ruler over the Median empire. The Assyrian King at the same time is going around conquering his neighbors. He looks to the Medes and Persians, convincing his allies that the two empires are a threat. Together with their allies, the Assyrians commanded over 60,000 horsemen and 200,000 archers and targeteers. Cyaxares knew of their plans and sent word to Persia asking for Cyrus to bring reinforcements. Cyrus assembles 10,000 archers, 10,000 slingers, and 10,000 targeteers. Before marching off to war he gives his army a speech promising them victory against their enemies.

Book Two

(2[9])Cyrus and Cambyses meet up with Cyaxares's forces. After discussing scouting reports, army sizes, and strategy they are heavily at a disadvantage. The biggest one is their army size of 100,000 troops, 10,000 horsemen and 60,000 archers and targeteers coming from the Medes, against the enemies' army size of 260,000. Being so outnumbered Cyrus mentions that they cannot win by a war of attrition. He realizes that if he cannot win with numbers then he can win with a better-quality army. He states that the common tactic of warfare is lightly armored range units, so he decides to refit his army to be more of a heavy melee army. His troops receive a corslet for the breast, a shield for the left arm, and a sword or battle-axe for the right hand.

The Persian army is trained by Cyrus in melee combat. He issues military reforms like ordering the soldiers of units to live together to form a bond with each other. Not giving soldiers food until they completed all their workouts. How hard the soldier works determines their rewards. Meetings are held with his officers to learn about the army's progress. Cyrus is informed of the difficulty the army is having with learning new tactics but they are improving. The rest of Book II focuses on Cyrus and his captains' thoughts on the new recruits. Some of the captains believe that time is needed for the recruits to settle into their positions. The other captains agree but do not think there is enough time for the recruits to be ready for battle.

Book Three

(3[10])The Persian army heads toward the Armenian Kingdom to collect the tribute owed to the Medes. The King of Armenia gathers his army to confront the Persians but flees when he learns of Cyrus leading the army. The King takes refuge high up in the mountains. Cyrus responds by surrounding the exit points with his army and captures the King's family and his treasure. He sends messengers to the located villages telling them that he considers them an enemy if they stay in their homes. Messengers are also sent to the King telling him to come to meet with Cyrus. Eventually, the King meets with Cyrus who puts the King on trial for abandoning his agreement with the Medes. The King's reasoning for not honoring the agreement was to gain freedom for his people. He still accepts any punishment given until his son, Tigranes, pleads with Cyrus to spare his father. Tigranes tries to convince Cyrus that his father is valuable as an ally and that his father learns from his folly. An argument sprues out between the two about if a person can learn from their follies in such a short time. However, Cyrus grants the Tigranes his wish but is happy that he gained another ally.

Cyrus returns everything he captures back to the King asking what his wealth and power are. The King tells Cyrus he has 8,000 horsemen, 40,000 archers and targeteers, and over 3,000 silver talents. Cyrus strikes a deal to take half of the Armenian army to add to his own. Also making the King pay 100 talents of silver to both Cyrus and the Medes. The Persian army heads off with their detachment of Armenian forces led by Tigranes to deal with the Chaldaeans who are at war with the Armenians. While at the border of the two nations, Cyrus looks for a spot to build a fort to gain control over the area. He comes across a mountain range known for the Chaldaeans to use as a scouting position. Rather than conquering the enemy, Cyrus wants to end the conflict between the Armenians and the Chaldaeans. However, Cyrus does not want to wait for peace talks and charges up the hill to capture the high ground. Chaldaean scouts see his army moving and try to counter their assault.

Cyrus leads his men up the hill, but Tigranes informs him that his Armenian soldiers cannot hold against the enemy. For the Chaldaeans are known for having the fiercest warriors in the region. In response, Cyrus orders the Armenians to feint a retreat to reel in the Chaldaean soldiers into his more experienced melee troops. Cyrus's plan works causing the enemy to retreat and take control of the high ground. Messengers are sent to the Armenian King asking him to bring builders to help build the fort. Medical assistance is given to the Chaldaean prisoners and Cyrus makes them an offer. He will set the prisoners free to go back to their people and can decide if they want to make peace or continue the war. After the prisoners leave the Armenian King shows up with his workers giving praises for Cyrus's victory. The Chaldaeans return to accept the peace offering. During the discussion Cyrus offers terms to both sides by being able to use each other lands to build up resources they have little of. The Chaldaeans are allowed to use the Armenian flat land for farming crops and the Armenians can use the Chaldaean hilly lands for pastures. Both nations also agree to allow marriage between the citizens and help each other in times of war.

Cyrus takes his forces to meet up with Cyaxares at Media. Upon arriving Cyrus gives over the loot taken in battle to his Uncle. He presses Cyaxares to move against the enemy first mentioning that they should not meet the enemy in their lands. Cyaxares agrees and gathers his forces to join Cyrus on the march. Persians, Medes, and Armenians invade the Assyrian lands. Enemy scouts see the advancing army and report back to the king. The Assyrian king summons his forces and goes out to meet Cyrus in battle. When the two armies are close to each other neither wants to be the one to advance. The Assyrian forces set up a defensive entrenchment around their camp. Cyaxares wants to attack, but Cyrus informs him that once the enemy sees the smaller force then the Assyrians would not hold back against them. Cyrus is still given the order from his uncle to attack and obeys the command. Chrysantas and other officers bring information that they capture Assyrian deserters to Cyrus. He learns that a small detachment of the enemy army is on the march with the rest station at the camp. Cyrus presses on the attack saying to his men, "Brave men to the front! Who follows me? Who will lay the first Assyrian low?"[11] Cyrus's soldiers clash with the Assyrians and quickly put them on the retreat. The fighting continues to take place at the enemy camp, but Cyrus orders his soldiers to pull back worried that reinforcements will overrun them.

Meaning of the Text

A relief of Cyrus the Great, subject of the Cyropaedia, at Pasargadae.

Book One

The first book's opening states that it began as a reflection about why some rulers are willingly obeyed and others are not. Everywhere, the author observes, humans fail to obey their rulers; the one exception is Cyrus the Great, a man who inspired obedience.[12]

A list of Cyrus's conquests follows, and the author seeks to understand why his subjects obeyed him "willingly." The work narrates his entire life, with only the first of eight books concerning the actual education of Cyrus.

The first book is devoted to Cyrus's descent, education, and stay at the court of his maternal grandfather, the Median dynast Astyages. Scholars have noted that Xenophon's description of pre-imperial Persian education is unusual and appears to be based upon the traditions of Sparta: the subject of Xenophon's other work the Constitution of the Lacedaemonians.

Books Two to Seven

Books two to seven cover Cyrus's life as a Median vassal on his path to establishing the world's largest empire. In these books, Cyrus is upheld as an example of classical virtue, but also uses what are now known as Machiavellian tactics. He proves a faithful vassal to the Medes, initially acting as a general to defend them from the more powerful and assertive Babylonian empire. He does so by cultivating alliances with nations such as the Chaldeans, Hyrcanians, Cadusians, Saka, and Susians. The remaining allies of Babylon include many nations of Asia Minor, as well as a corps of Egyptian infantry. Croesus of Lydia acts as general in the two powers' final field battle. Cyrus then returns with an increasingly international army to conquer Babylon. He is able to avoid a long siege by deflecting the course of the river through it, then sending soldiers in over the dry bed during a festival night. The claim that Babylon was conquered on the night of a festival by diverting the Euphrates River from its channel is also made by Herodotus (1.191).

Book Eight

Book eight is a sketch of Cyrus' kingship and his views of monarchy.

The last section of this book (8.8) also describes the rapid collapse of Cyrus's empire after he died. It has been speculated that this section was written by a later author. Alternatively, it may symbolize Xenophon's theoretical inconsistency concerning his conception of an ideal ruler, or show that Xenophon did not mean to describe an ideal ruler in any simple way. It may also intend to display, rather than undermine, Cyrus's strength as a leader.[13]

Related characters of questionable historical truth appear in the narrative as well. For example, the romance of Abradatas and Pantheia forms much of the narrative's latter half (v.1.3, vi.1.31ff, vi.4.2ff, vii.3.2ff).[14]


In classical antiquity, the Cyropaedia was considered the masterpiece of a widely respected and studied author.[15] Polybius, Cicero, Tacitus, Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Quintilian, Aulus Gellius and Longinus thought highly of Xenophon and his work.[16] Classical authors believed that he composed the Cyropaedia in response to the Republic of Plato or vice versa, and Plato's Laws seems to allude to the Cyropaedia.[17] Among classical leaders, Scipio Aemilianus is said to have carried a copy with him at all times;[18] it was also a favorite of Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar.[19]


The Cyropaedia was rediscovered in Western Europe during the late medieval period as a piece on political virtue and social organization.[20] It heavily influenced the late medieval and Renaissance genre known as mirrors of princes, which gave examples of leadership behavior to educate future rulers.[21][22] Giovanni Pontano, Bartolomeo Sacchi, Leon Battista Alberti and Baldassare Castiglione treated Cyrus as such an example.[23] However, unlike most mirrors of princes, whether the Cyropaedia was really intended to describe an ideal ruler is a subject of debate.

The Cyropaedia continued to be widely read in the early modern period and during the Enlightenment. Machiavelli's The Prince, which represented a turn toward modern political thinking, was particularly influenced by the Cyropaedia and represents a more sophisticated reading of Xenophon.[24] It appears critical of his idealistic approach to Cyrus, while also considering Cyrus's deceit and the danger of deceitful leaders part of the Cyropaedia's message.[25] Many early modern writers after Machiavelli, including Montaigne, Montesquieu, Rousseau, Bacon, Jonathan Swift, Bolingbroke, Shaftesbury, Edward Gibbon, and Benjamin Franklin also esteemed Xenophon as a philosopher and historian. The Cyropaedia was often used to model correct prose in classical Attic Greek, mastery of which was part of the education of European and American gentlemen in the eighteenth century.[citation needed] Thomas Jefferson had two copies of the book in his library, possibly for this reason.

In the nineteenth century, Xenophon and the Cyropaedia began to decline in popularity compared to other classical authors and works. This is partly because its endorsement of monarchy had grown less favorable.[26] Yet, in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, Xenophon's work has become more studied and esteemed.[26] Some present scholars[27][28] argue that the basic historical events of the Cyropaedia are more credible than those described in Herodotus's Histories, and debate continues over the work's relevance and historical accuracy.


  1. ^ Ashley Cooper, Maurice (1803). Cyropædia; or, The institution of Cyrus, . London. Printed by J. Swan for Vernor and Hood [etc.]
  2. ^ Sancisi-Weerdenburg, Heleen (1993), "Cyropaedia", Encyclopaedia Iranica, vol. 6, Costa Mesa: Mazda
  3. ^ "Introduction: Xenophon's Education of Cyrus", The Education of Cyrus, Cornell University Press, pp. 1–18, 2019-12-31, doi:10.7591/9780801471414-002, ISBN 9780801471414, S2CID 226789535, retrieved 2021-12-04
  4. ^ Christesen, Paul (November 2006). "Xenophon's Cyropaedia and military reform in Sparta". The Journal of Hellenic Studies. 126: 47–65. doi:10.1017/s0075426900007655. ISSN 0075-4269. S2CID 159693919.
  5. ^ a b "2. The Genre: Novels Proper and the Fringe", The Novel in the Ancient World, BRILL, pp. 11–28, 1996-01-01, doi:10.1163/9789004217638_003, ISBN 9789004217638, retrieved 2021-12-04
  6. ^ a b Sancisi-Weerdenburg, Heleen. "Cyropaedia". Encyclopaedia Iranica. Archived from the original on 2011-04-29.
  7. ^ W. B. Fisher (1968–1991). The Cambridge history of Iran. Cambridge: University Press. ISBN 0-521-06935-1. OCLC 745412.
  8. ^ "Cyropaedia, by Xenophon". www.gutenberg.org. Retrieved 2023-04-24.
  9. ^ "Cyropaedia, by Xenophon". www.gutenberg.org. Retrieved 2023-04-24.
  10. ^ "Cyropaedia, by Xenophon". www.gutenberg.org. Retrieved 2023-04-24.
  11. ^ Xenophon. "Cyropaedia, by Xenophon". www.gutenberg.org. Archived from the original on April 15, 2023.((cite web)): CS1 maint: bot: original URL status unknown (link)
  12. ^ Xenophon (1914), Miller, Walter (ed.), Cyropaedia: The Education of Cyrus, London: William Heinemann Ltd.
  13. ^ Phillips, Robert (27 June 2003). "Xenophon's Prince: Republic and Empire in the Cyropaedia". Journal of Politics. 65: 913–914 – via Wiley Online Library.
  14. ^ Smith, William (1867), "Abradatas", in Smith, William (ed.), Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology, vol. 1, p. 3, archived from the original on 2005-12-31, retrieved 2007-09-07
  15. ^ Nadon (2001, p. 4)
  16. ^ Nadon (2001, p. 3)
  17. ^ "LacusCurtius • Diogenes Laërtius: Plato#34". penelope.uchicago.edu.
  18. ^ Cawkwell, George (1972), The Persian Expedition (introduction), Penguin Classics
  19. ^ Nadon (2001, p. 6)
  20. ^ Nadon, Christopher (2001), Xenophon's Prince: Republic and Empire in the Cyropaedia, Berkeley: UC Press, ISBN 0-520-22404-3
  21. ^ Nadon (2001, p. 13)
  22. ^ Gilbert, Allan (1938), Machiavelli's Prince and Its Forerunners, Duke University Press p.12
  23. ^ Nadon (2001, pp. 6–7)
  24. ^ Nadon (2001, pp. 13–25)
  25. ^ "Thoughts on Machiavelli. By Leo Strauss. (Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press. 1958. Pp. 348. The American Historical Review. 1959-07.
  26. ^ a b "Xenophon - Legacy | Britannica". www.britannica.com. Retrieved 2021-11-15.
  27. ^ Steve W. Hirsch, The Friendship of the Barbarians: Xenophon and the Persian Empire (Hanover NH: University Press of New England, 1985.
  28. ^ Steven D. Anderson, Darius the Mede: A Reappraisal (Grand Rapids: Amazon/CreateSpace, 2014).